Welcome to the TACTICS (Theater Artists’ Collected Thoughts Insights Challenges & Strategies for Gender Parity Advocacy) interview series curated by Amy Clare Tasker.
Women are underrepresented on and off stage. The problem is clear. The causes are thorny, complex, and controversial; the solutions equally so. Many women and men have worked toward change for decades, and more are now asking, “What can we do?” The TACTICS interview series investigates what our community is already doing, what we’ve tried, and what we can do next to advocate for equal and better representation of women in theater.
Actor and Chair of the Equity Women’s Subcommittee,
recently renamed Union Women Actors Coalition (UWAC)
ACT: Who are you? Can you give me some background on how you came to be an advocate for gender parity in theater?
I am a Bay Area native, a union actor and a teaching artist. I became an advocate for gender parity, and specifically for union women actors, after moving back to the Bay Area and being told too many times by producers that I was very talented, but they needed their union contracts for the male roles (the implication being they couldn’t find non-union men who could do the jobs well.) As I spoke with other union women, I found they had all had similar experiences.
In the Bay Area (and many other markets throughout the country) there is an accepted truth that if a woman joins Actor’s Equity Association she will never be cast again. While this is obviously not 100% true, it is true enough to be a problem for all of the female actors in our community. It means that we are all losing in one way or another – talented, experienced non-union women are being paid pennies on the dollars earned by the union men with whom they share the stage. Many of those men may also be earning health care and pension funds by working on the production. Meanwhile, union women have very limited access to weekly paid contracts or benefits because they are so much more expensive than the non-union women who end up getting cast.
I am pretty convinced that the Bay Area theater community believes in fairness and equal access, but that it hasn’t looked at the issue of women and unionization from this perspective. I got involved because to me, it feels like a civil rights issue. I don’t believe it will change much unless people in our field and in our community begin to look at it that way.
ACT: What do you think are the most urgent or significant challenges women theater artists face right now?
I think the biggest challenge facing female theater artists is lack of opportunity – to lead, to participate, to speak, to work, to earn a living (or at least minimum wage.)
The other challenge/task facing us is to convince producers and theater boards that investing in women – in our stories, in us as individual artists, writers, designers, directors, actors – is good business and will have a positive economic impact on their organization. We have to engage in conversations about the bottom line and the beneficial role we play in that dynamic.
ACT: What tactics have you used (or seen used) to advocate for gender parity in theater?
I’ve seen boycotts (or girlcotts) of institutions that fail to include women in their programming. I have seen theaters that do well around this issue getting shout-outs and awards. I’ve also watched (and been a part of) people getting organized to show up and support the work being done at those theater companies. I’ve witnessed and been a big user of social media as a tool to organize, communicate and facilitate action.
ACT: What tactics have been most effective or least effective? Why do you think those tactics worked or did not work?
I am not sure how much the boy/girl cotts work. People seem to dismiss it as “angry women” and it doesn’t seem to reach the general public, who are really the people buying tickets (especially at the big theaters).
I think affirmation and celebration are great – it makes the producer excited and feel recognized for their efforts. I was also a big part of a successful letter writing campaign – I think it was successful because we were very specific about what we wanted, why we were writing, we had a timetable and were very diligent about getting the word out through personal email and social media.
To me the big game changer in all of this has been social media – it allows us all to stay up to date, connected and able to move quickly. While I do not think it is a great forum for discussion and debate (too much room for misinterpretation of intention and meaning) it does allow us a great ease and flexibility to communicate and mobilize.
ACT: How do you measure the effectiveness of your advocacy actions?
To measure effectiveness, you have to have set a specific goal for your action. So it is easy to say that yes, the Theatre Bay Area letter writing campaign worked. Other efforts, like showcasing talent and facilitating a place or relationships where people can talk and feel safe, is less quantifiable.
But in the year and a half since I became chair of UWAC, I have seen a groundswell locally and nationally around this issue. Which means we’re all doing something right.
ACT: What is one action someone could take today that would make a difference?
Educate the people in your life who are not theater makers – speak with your theater-loving friend, the parents of your students, your coworkers, your family. Raise their awareness: encourage them to look, to notice, to care. When the audience starts making a ruckus, positive or negative, that will be when the theaters really sit up and take notice.
Amy Clare Tasker is a San Francisco theater director and a member of “Yeah, I Said Feminist: a theater salon.” She is online at www.amyclaretasker.com and @AmyClareTasker.
Tune into our national Howlround conversation on advocacy best practices, moderated by Marisela Treviño Orta and Amy Clare Tasker. Thursday, May 2 at 11AM PDT/2PM EDT on Twitter at #newplay.